View from the Street: "All politics is local" - really?

Ania Lewandowska

View from the Street: "All politics is local" - really?

The local elections campaign has been overshadowed by the snap general election, but next Thursday millions of voters across the country will go to polling stations to elect their local representatives - and the stakes are high. 


2,370 seats across 24 English councils will be contested, plus councils across Scotland and Wales, with mayoral elections taking place in six regions of England. The local elections will boost support for some and dash hopes for others. It will strengthen some leaderships and undermine others’ political careers.


The result of the local and mayoral elections on Thursday, 4th May will be closely analysed and should serve as a good indicator of what might happen in just under six weeks’ time, when Theresa May faces the ultimate political challenge – a fight to return as a UK prime minister – though the result of that contest is in little doubt.


The Conservatives are campaigning on the premise that a vote for their candidates in the local elections is a vote for their "Plan for Britain". They are performing well in the opinion polls across the UK, including Wales to the surprise of many political commentators. The Labour heartland hangs in the balance.


Ordinarily, local elections happening midway through a government’s term result in voters showing their dissatisfaction with the governing party but this is not an ordinary election. The voters’ concerns about Brexit negotiations – and the independence referendum question in Scotland - will most likely dominate the agenda, and local issues will be pushed to the periphery.


There is little doubt that in England and Wales many Conservative gains are likely to be at the expense of Ukip, which enjoyed a surge the last time these seats were contested in 2013. Ukip’s leadership is in disarray after their leader Paul Nuttall’s defeat in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election in February, and we still do not know whether Nuttall will stand at the general election, even though that should be one of the easiest questions he, as the party leader, should be able to answer. 


The Liberal Democrats are contesting these elections having lost 124 seats in 2013 and 49 MPs at the general election in 2015 - the only way is up. Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of the Elections Centre in Plymouth, quoted in The Guardian yesterday, said that they also expected the Liberal Democrats to make net gains in the English council at the expense of Labour and Ukip.


And if you believe the picture drawn by a number of opinion polls, Labour is indeed in a dire position, set to lose hundreds of council seats across the UK. The latest study south of the border, based on tracking results of local government by-elections, suggests that the party will lose 75 councillors in England and more than 100 in Wales.


In Scotland, Professor John Curtice, the Strathclyde University polling expert, is predicting a double-digit fall in support for Labour. Curtice said is was likely the party would suffer a 13 per cent swing to the SNP – that would see Labour’s vote share fall from the 31 per cent it achieved in 2012 to around 18 per cent. In all likelihood, Labour’s vote share will fall behind a resurgent Tory Party in Scotland.


Robert Hayward, a Conservative peer and pollster, says Labour is facing a “cataclysmic” defeat in Scotland.


If the predictions are right, in Scotland Labour would lose control of 16 councils it currently runs by itself or as the lead partner in a coalition, including its past strongholds of North and South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire - now all extremely vulnerable and at risk of being taken by the SNP.


At Labour’s expense, the SNP could win outright majorities in around a dozen of Scotland’s 32 councils, up from two at present, and emerge as the largest party in almost a dozen more.


The Scottish Conservatives are working hard to pin the SNP back and build their own recovery north of the border, by campaigning resolutely against a second independence referendum.


And let’s not forget the Scottish Greens who are mounting their biggest ever council campaign, with 218 candidates aiming to build on existing councillor numbers.


Whatever happens next week, the local elections will be a test of Theresa May’s popularity, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, any ‘Brexit bounce’ for the Lib Dems, and will also help to determine the future of the Ukip. In Scotland, the SNP will hope for a morale boost before the crucial general election, which will test their second referendum plans.


The legendary Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, used to say that “all politics is local”. But next week’s local elections have a decidedly national feel.


Ania Lewandowska is a Senior Associate at Charlotte Street Partners. After graduating from Edinburgh Napier University with a degree in Journalism in 2009, she completed postgraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh and was awarded the Robert Schuman Communications scholarship at the European Parliament Directorate General for Communications in Warsaw. Most recently she worked as a Policy and Communications Advisor for an MEP.